“I am the Lost Boy Who Found a Way”
By the age of 14, I had a criminal record that stretched multiple pages. I had served time in juvenile hall, experimented with drugs, and gotten kicked out of multiple schools. For reasons I may never understand, my mother stuck with me — teaching me that no one is hopeless and inspiring me to rekindle hope in kids just like me by becoming an educator.
As a special educator, I gravitate toward students with attention deficit disorder (ADHD or ADD) and challenging behaviors. Indeed, it’s these students who first inspired me to join the teaching profession. Because, not long ago, I was one of them — a student with ADHD who caused more than a little trouble and rarely got all the support I needed.
Years Forgotten, for a Reason
My ADHD mind has blocked out a lot; I don’t remember all of my elementary school days. But one key memory speaks volumes: There I was, standing around a friend’s birthday cake in the middle of their party, blowing out the candles — with my nose.
I also remember being excluded from many birthday parties in the years that followed. And school celebrations. And field trips… if my mom couldn’t chaperone.
I got kicked off of sports teams, out of Cub Scouts, out of after-school care (two times), and out of 6th grade.
Just writing this makes my chest tighten; it’s almost unbearable and unbelievable how much trouble I got into as a kid. I probably looked like a troublemaker, but really I was a confused, frustrated adopted kid trying with all his might to contend with ADHD and oppositional defiant disorder (ODD). Nobody could tell me what to do, and my reactions… and actions… were very impulsive.
While I started Ritalin in first grade (in the late ‘80s) and was on all types of drugs like Wellbutrin and Dexedrine and others I don’t remember, I never seemed to find the right meds. Maybe if I had, I wouldn’t have found myself constantly in trouble.
Locked Up, Let Down
I entered middle school with ADHD, a chip on my shoulder, a burgeoning ability to commit crimes, and no special-education support to speak of.
I somehow made it to January of 6th grade before landing in juvenile detention for the first time. Soon after the second time, I did something that got me expelled from school. At that point, my mom fought to get me an IEP and admittance to an NPS (non-public school), where I was able to mellow it down for a couple years.
I spent a few weeks in a regular high school before getting locked up again for crimes related to drugs (self-medicate much?) and a host of other felonies and misdemeanors.
Four months of juvenile detention and ten months of rehab later, I found a new medication and new outlook on life. For the first time in my life, I had thoughts like, “What kind of future do you want for yourself?”
I stopped doing drugs and alcohol, started focusing on school, and began to pursue a career as a probation officer so I could help kids like me who were messing up. I also started volunteering in a class for students with developmental delays and that led me to being a TA after high school, and then a Special Ed teacher.
The ADHD Connection Is a Powerful One
My story is painful. I don’t enjoy reliving my adolescence, but I make a point of doing so every fall when I first meet my new students. I write them a “Welcome Letter” and I ask for one in return, which helps me get to know them and also serves as writing diagnostic.
I have found that my honesty and my story touches a lot of students. So much so that a few weeks ago I was sitting with a student doing some content support after school when he looked up at me and said, “Mr. Beckett, I have something I want to tell you; something only my parents know.” He went on to tell me that he has ADHD and takes meds. He said that he told me because he knows I have it, too, and I would understand.
The strategies I use with him now are tied directly to this shared experience and allow us to connect in situations like, “I know you don’t like to take your meds; I didn’t either. So try using your alarm and this Fighting Procrastination sheet when doing independent work to see if you can learn to focus without the meds.”
I talk about my ADHD in meetings with parents who are adamant against ADHD medications. While we have seen an explosion of ADHD diagnoses and medication prescriptions over the past decades, I still see a resistance to a) giving the label of ADHD, and b) using medications. Here, I find it helpful to just mention casually that I have ADHD and to mention that, while I hated to take meds myself, they changed my life. It’s an option everyone should at least consider, I say.
ADHD Like You
I tell my students that I was always the last one to finish a test because my distracted day dreaming would throw me off course. When the students connect with that, I tell them, “That’s one reason why you might have the ‘Extra Time’ accommodation. Use it!”
I also know how hard it is to sit still and sustain focus on a discussion. That’s why I am always designing ways to keep my teaching as multi-modal as possible. It’s also why I try to guide the readings (i.e. scaffolded questions), and check for understanding, and provide note-taking guides and all that.
Without those accommodations and scaffolds, many a student with ADHD gets lost. It’s our job to help mitigate this, and teach strategies for staying focused.
When I first became a teacher, my childhood friends and classmates couldn’t believe it. Likewise, my colleagues today don’t believe my history. Sometimes I don’t believe it myself.
I put my single mother through so much grief. Years ago, I got my own student file from the district. I was not shocked, when I read in a 5th grade psych memo, that my mother sometimes wondered why she adopted me. But she kept showing up and stayed with me all those years, and it paid off in the end.
Graduating from college and then later becoming a teacher were two of the greatest moments of my life, in large part because I felt I was paying my mom back for all the stress I caused her.
When I graduated from college, I wrote my mom a 6-page letter — something that I didn’t expect to go viral. But a few months later I was at the bank and an old friend’s mom mentioned that she read my letter and it was wonderful. I asked my mom about it and she said she had made photocopies and carried them around with her in her purse!
That’s when it hit me: Without the unyielding support and undying faith of my mother, I would be dead or in jail right now. She was more than my cheerleader; she was my reason to keep trying.
I know I can’t be that for every one of my struggling students, but that won’t keep me from trying to help them develop systems, set goals, and think about their future. If there is one message I hope to send above all others it is this: ADHD is not a death sentence. It’s just one of life’s many challenges, which you can learn to vault by harnessing your abilities, finding systems to stay focused, and knowing your strengths. Onward and upward!